Sometimes a film tackles a particular subject so exhaustively that there scarcely seems to be any point in subsequent movies about it. Jacques Rivette’s 1991 drama La Belle Noiseuse devotes four hours to the thorny relationship between a male artist and his nude female model, dissecting the power structure with minute attention to every emotional detail. Its existence towers over any effort to explore similar material, yet there have been two such attempts already this year alone. Renoir, though mediocre, at least had a biopic angle to exploit, and also split focus between painter Pierre-Auguste and his son Jean, the soon-to-be-famous filmmaker. Fernando Trueba’s The Artist And The Model, however, is a wholly fictional tale, and while it has a few lovely, tender moments, there’s a definite feeling of “been there, drawn that.”
Actually, Jean Rochefort plays a sculptor, though he sketches and paints as preparation. It’s sometime near the end of World War II, and although he hasn't worked in several years, he’s already achieved enough renown that a German officer (Götz Otto) is writing a book about him in his spare time. One day, while shopping at the local market, Rochefort’s wife (Claudia Cardinale) spots a young, apparently homeless girl (Aida Folch) sleeping in a doorway, and brings her home for a meal. The older woman's true motivation quickly emerges, however, as she proposes a deal: Folch, a Catalan refugee who fled Franco’s thugs, can stay at their house in the Pyrenees, provided she’s willing to pose—completely naked, of course—for Rochefort, whose creative mojo Cardinale hopes this nubile body may revive. Folch reluctantly agrees, and she and Rochefort embark on a journey that will produce both a new sculpture and new feelings.
Trueba, still best known in this country for the Oscar-winning Belle Epoque (1992), shoots The Artist And The Model in widescreen black and white, lending Folch’s curves an appealing classicism. The actress isn’t given much else to do, but Rochefort, now 83, compensates with his usual crusty poignancy; a scene in which he analyzes a Rembrandt sketch for Folch, pointing out the wealth of subtle information captured in a few quick penstrokes, throbs with a reverence for art and beauty that’s genuinely captivating. But attempts to acknowledge the existence of the war, via a resistance fighter (Martin Gamet) Folch helps escape to Spain, are distressingly shallow, and the bond between the two central characters never even vaguely approaches the complex heights achieved by Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart in La Belle Noiseuse, even as they constantly call them to mind for anyone who has seen that film. In the final scene, one of the characters makes an ostensibly shocking decision; that this act can be shrugged at—oh, okay—is evidence of how fundamentally placid and unchallenging Trueba’s work remains, two decades later.